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Over the last few years, a conversation has emerged on campus about renaming Harvard buildings, most prominently Winthrop House, for its namesakes’ slave-holding and violence against Indigenous peoples.
For many current students and alumni alike, the name Winthrop carries cherished memories of home at Harvard. For many others, however, it also represents the United States’ original sin, a constant reminder to community members of Harvard’s shameful connections to American slavery.
As a former Winthrop House Committee chair and recent alumnus, respectively, we believe a just and simple solution can do it all: keep the name Winthrop, powerfully rebuke Harvard’s white supremacist founders, and imbue the house’s title with the ethos of service and sacrifice Harvard students and Black soldiers made together in the name of freedom.
Harvard should rename Winthrop House to Winthrop Perkins Boynton House.
Winthrop Perkins Boynton, Class of 1863, represents the commitment to the fight for racial equality that Harvard should strive for. Boynton, a highly educated member of the then-all-white Harvard College student body, could easily have avoided military service in the Civil War. Instead, in 1863, Boynton volunteered immediately after graduation to serve as an officer in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, the second Black military unit in Massachusetts history.
Boynton and his fellow soldiers offer the best example of the dedication Harvard students can make to the United States’ shared struggle for the cause of freedom and equality.
When the Black enlisted soldiers of the regiment protested Congress’ decision to pay them less than their white peers, Boynton made clear that he sided with his men. An 1866 profile of Boynton records that “his sympathy was entirely with them, and in his letters he frequently praises the spirit and persistency with which they demanded their rights, and their performance of their duty under so great discouragement, and speaks with indignation of those who withheld their dues.”
Boynton committed himself fully to the United States’ crusade for equality until the last. In 1864, the 55th Massachusetts lost nearly 100 men in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. Boynton, leading his men from the front, was one.
Alongside him that day fought Andrew Jackson Smith, a runaway enslaved person who posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2001 for his gallantry at Honey Hill, as well as James Monroe Trotter, one of the first Black military officers during the Civil War and later a prominent advocate for Black rights.
These Black men surely overcame far greater obstacles than Boynton to serve in the 55th regiment, but all fought together to more fully realize the founding principles of the United States. Both should be recognized as well in the renaming process.
One-hundred-sixty years later, the United States’ struggle toward freedom continues. Harvard — and its monuments — should remind the student body that each generation must, like Boynton, commit themselves anew to the pursuit of justice.
To rechristen Winthrop, the University should hold a ceremony wherein they rename Winthrop house in honor of Winthrop Perkins Boynton, transforming the Winthrop name from a blemish on the University’s honor to a monument to one of its finest students.
Whether people choose to call the house Boynton, Winthrop, or Winthrop Perkins Boynton, the new name would offer a constant reminder of the 55th Regiment’s values. Harvard can also take this opportunity to replace the Winthrop family crest with a new flag dedicated to the 55th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers, Black and white soldiers alike.
May this new meaning inspire new students who carry the immense privilege of the Harvard education to volunteer for the cause of justice, as Winthrop Perkins Boynton did.
Philip A. Geanakoplos ’21 was in Mather House. Karina Ascunce Gonzalez ’22 was in Winthrop House and served as Winthrop House Committee chair.
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